What K-pop offers young outsiders that mainstream American pop doesn’t.
By Francie Diep
Miles Jai (left) at KCON, an annual Korean pop culture convention. (Photo: Miles Jai)
The Internet makes it easy to be a Korean pop fan these days. Even though K-pop songs and television series continue to be produced in Seoul, in Korean, and concerts in the United States remain rare, fans can now stream their favorite soap operas on K-drama-specific platforms, watch hot new tracks drop on YouTube, and devour English-language websites dedicated to following Korean celebrities—and then chat about everything with other fans across America in online forums. So it’s no real surprise that a number of young Americans (the Facebook group “American K-Pop Fans” boasts over 3,300 members) choose K-pop over American pop. What is surprising, at first blush, is that many of these K-pop fans identify as queer.
Mainstream Korean culture is noticeably more homophobic than American culture. In a 2013 Pew survey, 59 percent of South Koreans said society should not accept homosexuality, compared to 33 percent of Americans. That prejudice means the storylines of Korean shows rarely feature same-sex couples as main characters and very few Korean celebrities are openly queer. Yet LGBT American fans find in K-pop something they’re missing at home, including a vision of masculinity that looks, to American eyes, radical.
What K-pop fans like Miles Jai, a 23-year-old gay man in Los Angeles, seek reveals how far the American pop machine has to go in producing diverse, stereotype-busting music and videos.
- I needed more people of color. I feel I didn’t have that. I know there are a lot of singular people of color in pop here, like Beyonce, but I like groups. So when I saw K-pop….
- And not just people of color, but a different sound. I felt like One Direction and 5SOS kind of all have that same, “We’re boys, and you’re girls, and we’re cute, and we’re playing guitar.” Well, they don’t really play guitar. K-pop has more of a bang to it. There’s more bass to it, and then, on top of that, you’ve got the styling in the music videos. Sometimes, the K-pop idol you’re watching could be cute. Another time, he could be downright sexy, wearing all this black make-up. Next time, he could be a vampire. They switch it up all the time and I really, really like that about K-pop. I feel like they just have a lot more range than they give American groups.
- For the most part, it’s pretty understood and well-liked when these guys have their make-up on and they’re doing cutesy things because apparently that’s what the girls like over there. But over here, I know for a fact that would not fly. That’s probably one of my favorite things about K-pop, is how relaxed the masculinity is over there, at least on some level, aesthetically.
- I’ve been watching a ton of K-dramas lately. They are very focused on male-female relationships. There’s only one K-drama that I know of that has had a gay couple in it, but the gay couple, of course, doesn’t get that much screen time. I feel like something could be done in that area, but I’m not put off by it because, even though it’s heteronormative, it’s not in-your-face straight. It’s not like the male character can’t do anything that’s feminine because that’ll make him gay or something like that. That doesn’t exist in Korea, which is something I like. It exists, but it’s not as hardcore as it is here, as far as masculinity goes.
- In Korea, they don’t really acknowledge the existence of gay people, I’ve heard. I’ve been seeing a lot of entertainment where they will talk about it, or it will be mentioned, but it’s really not prevalent in the media. People can still lose their jobs if they come out as homosexual. That’s something I definitely see, that maybe I don’t like very much. That’s definitely upsetting.
- There are K-pop communities everywhere. It’s just a matter of using Google. If you have a favorite group, then you would go to the YouTube video and comment: “Hey, does anyone else like this group? Is there a community for it?” There’s forums for that kind of stuff everywhere.
— Miles Jai, YouTube video producer and gay K-pop fan, as told to Francie Diep.